America's Fresh Water Submarines

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We Remember

On Veterans day our family remembers those who have served.

We remember my father Dale Pickens who served as a radio operator on a ship in the merchant marines in World War Two. My father passed away ten years ago just a few months after celebrating fifty years of marriage with my mother Deloris Pickens.

We remember the service of Jack Clarke, a friend of our family living in Ponca City, who served as a marine at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima in World War Two.

We remember Mark Shields, my wife's uncle who was a concert pianist. Uncle Mark was called up to serve in 1952 and was killed in the fields of combat in Korea. [Click on the small photos to enlarge them.]

We remember my Uncle Gene Ray Pickens still living in Ponca City with his wife Joyce who was called up in the reserves in 1952 and served in Korea in the 45th Infantry Division - the Thunderbirds.

We remember Jack Vaughn, a friend of our family living in Tuscon, Arizona, who served as an officer in the US Marines in the Philippines in World War Two and later became the second Director of the US Peace Corps.

We remember the service of my Uncle Bill Roberts who lives in Oklahoma City and served in the army in Europe during World War Two. Uncle Bill came home as a master sargeant in 1945 to marry my aunt Lelda in Boswell Oklahoma.

We remember my Uncle Donald Cress who served in the US Navy in World War Two. I want to tell you the story of my Uncle Donald Cress - a man I never met.

Uncle Donald

I first learned about Uncle Donald when I was visiting my grandparents in Minnesota in the 1950's and saw Uncle Donald's purple heart in my grandparents' bedroom. I asked who the medal belonged to and my mother and grandparents told me about my Uncle and what had happened to him. Donald Cress was the older brother of my mother Deloris Pickens. He graduated from high school in Geneva, Minnesota in 1941 and after Pearl Harbor he volunteered to join the US Navy. When Donald volunteered, he asked to join the submarine service. "I want to come back from the war whole or not at all," Don told his family.

Uncle Don was sent to New London, Connecticut to train as a radio operator and upon completing his training was sent to Manitowoc, Wisconsin where the USS Robalo was being constructed. Don served as a radio operator on the Robalo (SS 273) under Commander M.M. Kimmel in the Pacific theatre during World War Two. Commander Kimmel was the son of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel who had been Commander-in-chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Kimmel was forced to retire after Pearl Harbor but many historians now think that Kimmel was blamed for the failures of his superiors prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor and that his career and reputation were unfairly ruined

The Robalo

Robalo was a Gato Class Submarine whose keel was laid down on October 24, 1942 at Manitowoc Shipbuilding Co, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin about 80 miles north of Milwaukee. Twenty-eight submarines were constructed at Manitowoc before the end of the war and they were called "Fresh Water Submarines" because they were commissioned in the Great Lakes. Robalo was launched on May 9, 1943, underwent sea trials in Lake Michigan and commissioned on September 28, 1943. There was no St. Lawrence seaway until the 1960's so the fresh water submarines had to be transported down the Mississippi River. Gato class submarines had a minimum draft of 12 feet but could be transported through Chicago and the 9-foot-deep Chain of Rocks Channel near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers by carrying the submarines in a floating dry dock.

Robalo made her way to the Gulf of Mexico down the Illinois River to the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico then on to Gulfport, Mississippi where she was refitted with reinstalled periscope shears, periscopes, and RADAR masts which had been removed to clear bridges over the Illinois River when it was transported through Chicago. On November 19, 1943 Robalo crossed the Panama Canal into the Pacific Ocean. With a cruising range of 11,000 miles, Robalo began her journey to her new home port in Fremantle, Australia where she would take up her battle station in the South China Sea.

I spoke to Jim Brenan in Fargo, North Dakota about the Gato-class submarines on November 9, 2009. Brenan served as a mechanic on the USS Chopper, a submarine identical to the one Don served on, and told me that life on a Gato-class submarine was hard. The crew spent months in a very hot, confined space and there was almost no fresh water for the men. Showers were allowed once a month. To maximize the operating range of the submarine to 11,000 miles the ship carried 116,000 gallons of diesel and just 3,000 gallons of water for the crew's consumption. The crew worked three shifts around the clock with each seaman spending four hours on, then eight hours off.

In her first patrol, in the area west of the Philippines, Robalo damaged a large enemy freighter. In her second patrol in the South China Sea near Indo-China she sank a 7,500-ton tanker. The Robalo departed Fremantle on June 22, 1944 to conduct her third war patrol in the South China Sea in the vicinity of the Natuna Islands. On July 2 a contact report from the Robalo stated that she had sighted a Fuso-class battleship with air cover and two destroyers for escort just east of Borneo. No other messages were received from Robalo and when she did not return from patrol, she was reported as presumed lost.

On August 2 1944, a note dropped from the window of a prison cell at Puerto Princesa Prison Camp, Palawan in the Philippine Islands. The note said that it was from survivors from Robalo who were being held by the Japanese. The note was picked up by an American soldier in a work detail and given to another prisoner who contacted Mrs. Trinidad Mendosa, wife of guerrilla leader Dr. Mendosa. From this note and from other sources, the US Navy was able to put together what happened to the Robalo.

"Robalo was sunk 26 July 1944, two miles off the western coast of Palawan Island as a result of an explosion of her after battery. Four men swam ashore, an officer and three enlisted men: Samuel L. Tucker, Ensign; Floyd G. Laughlin, QMlc; Wallace K. Martin, SM3c, and Mason C. Poston, EM2c. They made their way through the jungles to a small barrio northwest of the Puerto Princesa camp. They were captured there by Japanese Military Police, and confined in the jail. They were held for guerrilla activities rather than as prisoners of war, it is said. On 15 August 1944, they were evacuated by a Japanese destroyer, and nothing further is known of their destination or whereabouts. They may have been executed by the Japanese or the destroyer may have been sunk. At any rate, they were never recovered and their note stated that there were no other survivors."

The Navy Remembers

The US Navy lost 3,615 men on 52 submarines in World War Two. Jim Brenan told me that when a ship was lost, all the parents would receive was a telegram - there was no body recovered, no grave, no tombstone. So several years ago, the US Submarine Veterans of World War II decided to honor the memory of those who lost their lives in submarine warfare with permanent memorials to each submarine lost and a plaque with the name of each crew member lost. Each state was asked to “adopt” one lost submarine to memorialize and North Dakota’s was the USS Robalo. A 3,700-pound granite slab was placed in Lindenwood Park in south Fargo with the names of the Robalo’s crewmembers engraved on one side and a brief history of the Robalo on the other side. On July 23, 2005 the permanent Memorial to the Robalo was dedicated in Fargo, the city that had adopted the submarine and its crewmembers lost 61 years before.

"Those that made this commitment and on their eternal patrol, may now rest in peace…"

“Well done Shipmates, Well Done!”

We will never forget you.

Photos

Memorial Day Parade in Ponca City, Oklahoma.

The Robalo (SS-273) hits the water with a huge splash, during her launching at Manitowoc Shipyards, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, 9 May 1943. US Navy Photos: Navsource

Commissioning ceremonies on the Robalo's (SS-273) deck, 28 September 1943.

References